Much of Beardsley’s career focus has been on contemporary environmental art, a different animal from Farrand’s work, which inherently looked to historical antecedents.
Yet the second and third installations in particular seemed to have augmented rather than diminished the garden at Dumbarton Oaks and forced a reevaluation of Farrand’s masterpiece as being wholly immutable. “Most poignantly for me,” said Griffin, “I have missed them when they were gone.”
“We don’t want the gardens to be fossilized but rather something living, and if the temporary installations help to keep them alive, that’s all to the good,” said Jan Ziolkowski, the institution’s director.
When Beardsley asked to initiate the installations, Ziolkowski asked himself if there was a threat to the mission to preserve the garden, “and after listening to all the fears and paranoias I had, I said, no, there really isn’t much of a risk.”
More than 20,000 visitors a year come to enjoy the serene garden, many of them Washington regulars. Numbers have jumped in the past five years, in part because of the outdoor artworks but also because the museum was reopened after a renovation. Ziolkowski thinks the recession may have also raised attendance as people have come to nourish their souls.
Trim, lithe and a youthful 60, Beardsley has spent a career mostly in Washington as a curator, writer and academic in an area of study that embraces environmental art, land art, and landscape design and history. He teaches at Harvard one day a week. He must also attend to the traditional duties of his position: organizing an annual symposium, directing publications, and selecting and guiding interns and fellows.
He grew up in suburban New York — his father made a living in real estate before turning full time to painting and art restoration. Beardsley worked at the Hirshhorn Museum in the 1970s and at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the 1980s and later received a PhD from the University of Virginia.
He said that as a student of art history, he was drawn to landscape as a subject because it was “suddenly everywhere” after a century of neglect. In the 19th century, it inspired painters and early photographers discovering America’s natural beauty. In the 1970s, it was embraced by a new generation of avant-garde environmental and conceptual artists.
And because much of the subjects were in the Southwest or West, it became a way for a kid from the East Coast to discover the rest of America.
Later, in an e-mail, Beardsley wrote to say that there was another formative experience that drew him to this esoteric subject of land as art. In the 1960s, his parents moved to Britain, and he found himself in an international high school in South Wales. Ancient watchtowers, medieval castles and jousting fields became part of his teenage world. In such a historically layered setting, “you absorb an awareness of cultural landscapes of so many kinds.”
Neither bombastic nor polemical, Beardsley nevertheless is still driven to open our eyes.
“If I’m fighting against anything, it’s the tendency to see the garden as a passive place without ideas,” he said.